It’s hard to see how Mike Pezzullo can return to the job from which he has just been made to step aside.
And neither should he.
There is no coming back from allegations – and some pretty compelling evidence – of behaviour so unbecoming of a departmental secretary that it’s jaw-dropping.
It’s long been known that the Home Affairs secretary operates somewhat uniquely, but this is more than odd behaviour.
This is behaviour that undermines the integrity of the entire Australian Public Service.
Since winning government last year, Labor has made a lot of noise about demanding integrity from the APS. About having a public sector adhering to the highest of standards. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has talked about it, and Public Service Minister Katy Gallagher never misses an opportunity to raise the issue of an APS committed to ‘integrity’.
In the wake of the Robodebt disgrace and the continuing PwC scandal, demands for integrity from the government workforce are not only a good look but an essential reminder worth repeating often.
The new(ish) APS Commissioner Gordon de Brouwer highlighted integrity as a priority from the moment he took up the appointment.
Indeed, he was the secretary for Public Sector Reform immediately before stepping into his current role.
The government has even taken steps to include ‘stewardship’ as an APS value.
One of the earliest public service-related things it did was to introduce legislation to that effect.
Now an obvious opportunity presents itself for the government to show just how committed it is to demanding the highest standard of integrity from the public service because nothing about a thousand texts over five years between Pezzullo and Liberal Party powerbroker Scott Briggs comes anything close to remotely resembling integrity.
A department secretary lobbying a lobbyist over a right-wing agenda is anything but integrity on display.
It’s the exact opposite of integrity.
Leaked encrypted texts between Pezzullo and Briggs show the lengths the secretary went to to get right-wing ministers installed into office – even over his own department.
They show how the pair tried to influence government policy – even in the Home Affairs portfolio – and entrench a conservative mindset across government.
They reveal a complete disrespect for parliamentary procedures, a free media and cabinet ministers who don’t fit their view of the world.
To be clear, this would be just as offensive if a department secretary used contacts close to the government of the day to push a left-wing agenda.
It’s offensive because public servants are obliged to be apolitical, and the top echelons of the APS even more so.
The leaked texts reveal an eager and politically biased operator prepared to disregard the independence of the public service and the foundations of the Westminster system Australia’s government operates under to pursue an agenda that suits himself.
There has been plenty of commentary since a Nine News investigation broke this story, including calls for Pezzullo to be permanently dismissed.
Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly perhaps put the best context around it regarding the wider public service and the expectations of impartiality.
“APS employees can face disciplinary action for sharing political content on social media, so it is astounding to learn that one of our country’s most senior public servants has been sharing a political hitlist with a known Liberal Party operative,” Ms Donnelly said.
“Mike Pezzullo’s position as Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs is clearly untenable.”
Pezzullo can’t be allowed to return to that office or any other senior public sector role.
The only thing that could save his reputation would be if the text messages were shown to be fake – and that’s not going to happen.
If the APSC’s investigation of this matter goes lightly on one of its own, then this government should stop talking about integrity because no one will be listening if Pezzullo is cleared.